Key challenges for UNESCO sites

Lake Ohrid

There is a growing interest and urgency to address the centuries old separation between culture and nature – a split that proves problematic when attempting to provide holistic responses to the management of sites, landscapes or destinations. The reality of this rupture is demonstrated by the fact that, as of 2017, there are 1,073 UNESCO World heritage properties, but just 35 that are described as ‘mixed’ sites.

How many of those remaining 1,038 sites are really effectively understood or managed by making the black and white selection that chooses between an Either and an Or, but not BOTH facets? The reasons behind this reluctance to cross the nature-culture bridge are many and complex. From the ease of working with familiarity, to the challenges of business interests clashing with conservation issues, to the difficulties in finding a working relationship between numerous ministries or jurisdictions with little or no history of collaboration. The long negotiations encountered in locations such as the Australian WHS at Kakadu or Uluru-Kata Tjuta have certainly influenced governmental decisions elsewhere to avoid the hard path of synthesising factors such as the rights of indigenous peoples and local communities with business or development priorities, and attempting to find a middle ground.

Nonetheless, a belated realisation that far greater collaboration and interdisciplinary exchange eventually reaps broader benefits is now being acknowledged directly by the UNESCO advisory bodies, ICOMOS and IUCN. Across a number of events and platforms, the nature-culture journey or culture-nature journey (depending on which discipline or agency you approach from!) has launched declarations (PDF), training courses and extensive workshops (PDF).

To break this cycle I believe the route forwards is through persistence, practice and exchanges out in the ‘field’, and to bring together specialists from the disciplines concerned, to walk, talk and seek a closer understanding of each other’s perspectives and methods.

One pertinent case study is the UNESCO coordinated project that is seeking to expand across the FYROM-Albania border, the designation and management of the spectacular Lake Ohrid mixed natural-cultural World Heritage Site. Out in the ancient tectonic landscape of Europe’s oldest lake, Ohrid colleagues from across border and across disciplines, worked around tables, but equally walked up hills to seek views, panoramas and perspectives in all senses of the word.

In the case of Lake Ohrid, easy solutions were not arrived at. Comfort zones and ways of thinking and working still have to break through difficult barriers. But we did take, and encourage others to also take, those steps on a profitable and stimulating culture-nature journey.


For the past 20 years, Jonathan Karkut has worked on developing, managing and delivering research, training and capacity building for projects and consultancy in the areas of tourism, cultural heritage and development. His specialisms include intangible cultural heritage, geopark development and development in conflict and post-conflict regions. Read Jonathan’s bio.